Researchers find a special place in the Jacó Scar

Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Greg Rouse Researchers estimated that there are more than 14,000 tubeworms in this community.

When researchers explored the deep ocean off Costa Rica two years ago, they were surprised to find a unique ecosystem and a multitude of unknown species.

The summary of that exploration now has been published in a scientific journal. Involved were researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias del Mar y Limnología at the Universidad de Costa Rica.

The unique environment was a mixture of creatures from hot and cold areas of the deep ocean. The area is called the Jacó Scar, and it is where an underwater mountain on the Coco tectonic plate is moving under the lighter Caribbean plate. This is the area that generates many of the earthquakes on the Pacific coast.

Said the university in a news release:

“Among the many intriguing aspects of the deep sea, Earth’s largest ecosystem, exist environments known as hydrothermal vent systems where hot water surges out from the sea floor. On the flipside, the deep sea also features cold areas where methane rises from seeps on the ocean bottom.

“It’s extremely rare to find both habitat types intersecting in one place, but that’s what researchers found and explored during an expedition in 2010 off Costa Rica.”

Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Greg Rouse A closeup of a tubeworm spotted by researchers in the deep ocean.

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) published the findings this week, and the university said that the description of the scientists’ work included a large number of mysterious, undescribed species. Lisa Levin of Scripps Institution of Oceanography led the expedition, said the university.

The university characterized the location as a hybrid site where aspects of both a hydrothermal vent system and a methane seep exist in unison. The researchers coined the phrase hydrothermal seep to describe the ecosystem, the university said.

“The most interesting aspects of this site are the presence of vent-like and seep-like features together along with a vast cover of tubeworms over large areas and a wealth of new, undescribed species,” said Ms. Levin in a release by the university.

Co-existing animals ranged from those known to primarily inhabit hot vents or cold seeps, along with foundation species that exist in both settings, said the university. In addition to tube worms, the team documented fish, mussels, clam beds and high densities of crabs, it added.

The unique aspect of the investigation is that researchers used the submersible ALVIN to actually travel to the ocean depths. Said Ms. Levine: “In this instance the human presence, in the submersible ALVIN, was key to our findings. The site had been visited remotely by other researchers, but it was not until human eyes saw shimmering water coming from beneath a large tubeworm bush that we really understood how special Jaco Scar is.” She is director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.

Because so little is known about the deep ocean, the researchers say it’s likely that further hybrid or mosaic ecosystems remain undiscovered, possibly featuring marine life specialized to live in such an environment, said the release.

“There are plenty of surprises left in the deep sea,” she was quoted as saying.

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